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Deposit by Candidates at Parliamentary Elections

Part of Orders of the Day — Representation of the People Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 14th February 1985.

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Photo of Mr David Mellor Mr David Mellor , Putney 4:45 pm, 14th February 1985

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for what he has said. He has not been the only hon. Member to welcome what the Government have decided to commend to the House, which is, of course, an acceptance of the amendment proposed so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr). None of those who have accepted the compromise have thrown their hats in the air any more than I have done. The outcome is not so unsatisfactory as to be unacceptable to all, and is not so satisfactory as to bring great pleasure to all. But, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that is the mark of a sensible compromise.

It is interesting that the debate has revealed that, however wide the circle of agreement, there are still some who are determined to remain outside it. We heard a few such contributions this afternoon, not least from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He managed to find himself thinking that we had been ungenerous and had fixed the level of the deposit too high, even at £500, and that we had correspondingly been too generous and liberal in fixing the threshold at 5 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman had not been so patently sincere, I might have found his arguments a little contrived, because of his very determination to take issue with what otherwise seem essentially modest proposals. He was the first hon. Member to mention the Chesterfield by-election. It proved to be an interesting diversion for several hon. Members to speculate on the names of the candidates, their numbers and the sanity of any or all of them. However, I should not like to venture into that debate.

I do not think that it shows an excess of pomposity at the Dispatch Box if I say that I think that the House should address itself a little more seriously to the question of electing Members of Parliament who then go on to form or influence the formation of a Government. After all, we are a democracy. There are barely a few dozen true democracies out of a United Nations' membership of more than 150 countries. There are plenty of people who would like the opportunity to stand in serious elections. I wonder whether it is a sign of maturity or of decadence that we should smile indulgently on those who try to turn elections into farces.

The Government have always tried to make clear that the issue really involves recognision of the fact that being a candidate at a parliamentary election gives that person considerable advantages in terms of the free distribution of literature, restrictions on the proper coverage of the election, and so on, and that it is appropriate that the community should expect him to be a serious candidate. That does not mean "serious" in the sense that he is addressing the problems of the world seriously, or in a manner that seems to him to be serious, but that he has a serious prospect of obtaining a reasonable degree of support. Therefore, the argument must be about what a reasonable degree of support is.

We have taken a reasonable view of that in saying that one vote in 20 is not an unreasonable ambition for anyone who is remotely serious as a candidate. Indeed, £1,000 would certainly not have been an unreasonable figure to reflect the financial benefits of candidature. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) said. I am as attracted to the figure of £1,000 as I was the day that I first advocated it with considerable passion and vehemence, when the House first debated the issue in the summer. However, I have been driven to £500 and I console myself with the thought that at least that is an appropriate recognition of the privileges of being a candidate, even though it is in no way as sufficient as I would have liked the House to accept.

Of course, I appreciate that there are some who do not agree with that. For example, the hon. Member for Walsall, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) do not agree. My hon. Friend spoke of the devastating effect on small parties. Sometimes our language is abused by using dramatic words to describe relatively undramatic situations. We are used to that in newspaper headlines, but I was not hitherto accustomed to it in my hon. Friend's speeches. His use of the word "devastating" was somewhat hyperbolic in the context of the situation that he outlined to us. He seemed to say that a small party would have aspirations to have a substantial wedge of Members of Parliament and would therefore put up a lot of candidates. He argued that it would be driven into bankruptcy by having to pay lost deposits in respect of each of them. In so far as I followed his argument, I would say that if a party was so unreal in its ambitions that it thought that it would get Members of Parliament by putting up a lot of candidates, and subsequently failed to cross the threshold, it must be concluded that its subjective view of the world was not one that it could expect the rest of us to share.

We all get sentimental about the Ecology party, but it barely polls more than a few hundred votes in any constituency. If hon. Members accept my definition of seriousness, which is that a candidate has a serious prospect of obtaining a reasonable proportion of the vote and that that is why he is given the privileges that attach to being a parliamentary candidate, we cannot take parties at their own subjective estimates. It becomes even more difficult when, as we know in the case of the National Front, a party obtains party broadcasts on the strength of putting up a certain number of candidates. If we make it easy for people to have the opportunity to address millions of our fellow citizens at prime time in a party political broadcast, we must ensure that only those who have realistic level of support in the community are entitled to that privilege.

5.30 pm

It is with some regret—though not for the reasons advanced by my hon. Friend—that I have concluded that his suggestion of using the register would not be an appropriate way forward. It would not be a proper use of the register for anyone who could be bothered to register, even the official Raving Loony party, which, after my remarks yesterday, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has assured me is not yet part of the alliance, nor does he intend that it should be. That registration should give the right to stand, without hindrance or impediment, in any constituency would not begin to be credible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) raised the important issue of people standing claiming to be representatives of a party of which they are not representatives. That problem concerns not only the Conservative party; it should also concern the Labour party following a recent council election in Glasgow at which two candidates claimed to be the official candidates, as a result of which the Labour party won the seat with a reduced majority.

The problem could have been resolved by having a register of parties. However, that would have led to consequences which led a number of those involved in the political parties to conclude that it would not be an acceptable price to pay. It is with some reluctance, therefore, that I have concluded that the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield cannot be dealt with in this measure in the manner proposed, for different reasons, by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that the Government would have been more than content to have taken powers in the Bill to enable a future Government to increase, by affirmative resolution, the level of the deposit. However, that proposition would not have been acceptable to others and, in the spirit of compromise that has emerged in discussing this important measure, which sets the framework under which we all contest elections, we decided not to pursue that line, although it was with some reluctance that we reached that conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) made an interesting speech about signatories, and we know that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed supports the idea of signatories. The fact that somebody has signed a nomination paper does not indicate support; it indicates assent to his nomination. They are very different propositions, as I discovered when, to my surprise, a Welsh National candidate decided to contest my constituency of Putney. I had not hitherto thought that Putney was on the list of promising seats for the Welsh National party.